A Touching Tale Of Leprosy In Kashmir

"We all have the same story here. After my family abandoned me, it was these people who adopted me and looked after me for all these years."

Photo of four men in the leper colony

A place to be accepted

Junaid Kathju

SRINAGAR — Nizamuddin Bajad, who claims to be 100 years old, was a young man when he arrived in a leper colony situated on the banks of Nigeen lake, far from the noise and crowd of Srinagar city.

Bajad, a resident of Chattaragul village in Ganderbal district, had lived all his life as a nomad, traveling across stretches of Jammu and Kashmir with his flock of sheep and goats. Then one day, he suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease.

"I was married and was living a happy life as a Bakarwal. But everything changed when I was diagnosed with this disease," Bajad said, while sitting with his old friends outside his apartment.

The hope of a leper colony in Srinagar

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease and mainly affects the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and eyes. It can occur at all ages and is likely transmitted through droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contact with untreated cases.

With no medication back then to treat the disease, Bajad's family left him on his own before he found his way to the leper colony in Srinagar.

"I had nowhere to go. My family left me at god's mercy. I was devastated. But after arriving here I got a new lease on life," he said.

Nothing short of a miracle.

In the 1980s, after the discovery of medicines labeled as multidrug therapy (MDT), leprosy became a treatable disease. The medicine was nothing short of a miracle for patients like Bajad, who till then were considered "untouchables" by society.

Living in the colony for the past 60 years, Bajad has not only been cured but also gotten married and started a new family.

"When I arrived in this colony, there were many like me, who too were abandoned by their families and were on their own. It gave me hope that I am not alone in this," he said. "I found a new life here and it is my home now."

The colony, which currently consists of around 71 leprosy patients, is the only rehabilitation center of its kind in the Valley. Built during the 19th century under the Kashmir Medical Mission by Britishers, the colony, which gives a serene feeling because of its green ambiance, consists of 62 quarters, a mosque, a double storied hospital and a graveyard.

The colony is currently looked after by the Directorate of Health Services, Kashmir. The department provides food, medicine and clothes to the patients. They also receive a monthly allowance from the social welfare department.

Photo of houses and trees on the colony

The housing on the colony.

Married with children

Though the people, belonging to different places, were initially compelled to live a life in exile in the colony, over the years, their bonhomie, love and care for each other have made this place their permanent home.

Sharifuddin Sheikh, who is the spokesperson of the Leprosy Association that consists of the elderly people of the colony, said that after finding treatment for the disease, most of them who were abandoned by their families got married and started a new life here.

"Many of us, whose families have left them alone fearing that they too will catch the disease, later got married here after receiving proper medical treatment," Sheikh, who is blessed with two healthy children, said.

"It has been 35 years now since I have been living here. In 1994, I got married to a woman who, like me, had no one else in her life," he said. "I have two sons. One has done post-graduation and is working in a private company. Both my sons are healthy and are living a normal life."

I came here when I had no one in my life.

Sheikh's wife Zarifa is also content in the colony. "I came here when I had no one in my life. My life was full of hopelessness. But god gave me a good husband and caring children," Zarifa said.

Sheikh said they all live like a big family in the colony.

"Everybody knows each other here. It is like a big joint family. We look after many patients who are old and have no family. Besides, there is always a medical team on duty in the hospital, which looks after all of us," Sheikh said.

Sheikh said it has been many years since any new patient arrived in the colony.

Junaid Kathju is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He tweets @JunaidKathjoo.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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